Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Shaded by a Genie

The more I was learning about the language, the more I was learning that I had so far to go. Two steps forward, one fall back. Even though I'm tripping over my feet advancing, it is an advancement, and I'll take it. My 3 year contract with the Koshigaya Board of Education was coming to a ceremonial closing clap at the same time the capital city of the prefecture, Urawa, was initiating a new post in the International Relations Section at the City Hall. The job would require Japanese ability: spoken, written, thinking, eating and drinking.

I liked the idea of being the first to take the position. With no predecessor to follow, I had no daunting geta to fill, which helped my confidence in the lame sense that I wasn't failing before entering on a "by comparison" technicality. I interviewed, was offered the job, and accepted. The apartment I was in at the time was owned by Koshigaya City, so I had to vacate that humble two-half (yes, two-half, not two and a half) room abode and move to a new, albeit 30 year old rental, in Urawa City (which is now Saitama City, but that doesn't have anything to do with my mark on the place).

Three years is still novice in Japan, but nonetheless I maintained my home-grown Midwestern privacy barriers. After all, by this point, I've already been assisted on how to shower, bathe and flush toilets. Now I had the privilege of having the office big wigs at my new job personally move me from apartment A to apartment B, on their day off. Moving day was July 31, starting day was August 1. We agreed to a 9 AM start time on the 31st. The bell rang promptly at 9 AM on the 30th. For a split second, I questioned if I was thinking in Eastern Standard Time, but that would have meant they'd be a day later, not earlier. They came, unannounced, to help me box up my once private, personal, and unmentionable belongings.

They removed their shoes in the entrance way, put on working gloves and started bringing boxes and rolls of tape into my place. Kaneko san took the bedroom, and Matsuda san the living room. No words were exchanged. They went straight to work with no break. Before I could roll the offer for a cold drink off my tongue, I noticed Mastusda san sealing the box labeled dishware. I made a dash to my toiletries before it was too late so I could at least put my deodorant in a Ziploc by myself. Yeah, that guarded my pride.

Unannounced visitors are not always unwelcome, but this was the kind of thing in Japan that went against the all the independent thinking values I was brought up on. Some decisions I want to exercise input. As it is, the weather forecast on TV tells you whether or not you should do laundry that day based on how long it will take a white tee shirt to dry on the line, and they always tell you if it's a short sleeve day as opposed to a long sleeve day, and whether or not you'll need a large umbrella or if a fold up one will do for the day. Just give me the forecast, and based on that information, let me decide what I'll wash, wear and carry that day! But this was another thing I just had to roll with, and appreciate in the end. They used their own cleaning products to wipe down the empty place when they were done since they already boxed mine off, took the trash with them, and zoomed off into the night with a reminder on my 9 AM date for tomorrow. For some reason, I trusted them that it really was tomorrow, which this time turned out to be an instinct in my favor. Moving day was more predictable: load, unload, sip ice coffee (brought over on a tray from the landowner), leave with a see you in the office for your first day tomorrow. I plopped down on the futon and dreamt that I really didn't start work the next day, rather Kaneko san and Matsuda san showed up at 9 AM to un-box. Not so. I only had to lose my privacy on the way out, not in. I may have cursed myself with that wish for independence: I was on my own.

I was on my own linguistically too. Until now, I had been surrounded by Japanese teachers of English in the schools, or English speaking supervisors at the board of education. Even though when I reached a certain level I spoke Japanese with them, I could still be lazy and slip over a word I didn't know and toss it out in English. However, I was the only English speaker in my section at the Urawa City Hall. That was the point of the job: They didn't have one, so they hired one. I found myself stretching my already taller than everyone range when reaching for words. I'd dance around what I was getting at with descriptive Japanese: I need one of those taller-than-a-beverage-glass containers that has a lid-cuppie thing on top and it keeps the hot drinks hot and the cool drinks cool. "Ah! Mahoubin!," I got in response. Well, Thermos is much shorter and to the point, but at that point, not in my word bank. Incidentally, mahoubin directly translates into magic bottle, which I accepted since I was ready for a Genie to come out and look over me.

On the first day of work, the section chief escorted me to every floor of the building to introduce me. I had three years of this downward bobble head bow with a nice to meet you, please be good to me routine, so this part was not nerve-racking.
I settled into my desk, which had a newspaper article on top that I was to translate from Japanese to English regarding a newly designed cargo train track to be constructed at the Urawa train station. Under that (you're wondering how I could put that down to check the rest of my inbox) there were lists of potential host family contacts in the city for foreign exchange students, as well as an event schedule highlighting international events the Mayor was to attend where I was expected to be his interpreter. Just when I was hoping he was not slotted for a round of speeches on this cargo load, I get a non intrusive interruption from a colleague. She handed me a parasol and informed me that I might need it that day, so she brought an extra. I politely thanked her in a non routine way since I was wondering if I could have possibly heard that right. There was a roof on the building and nobody around me showed visible signs of a sunbrella on hand. The only time I had ever seen one in person or held a real live parasol before that moment was as an extra in high school for the musical Hello Dolly. Luckily my imagination did't go as far to fear that I was supposed to sing and dance later.

The section was having lunch out that day, so I brought my parasol with the same ominous feeling that Goldie Hawn must have had when Chevy Chase told her to "bring an umbrella" when she was being set up in Foul Play. We loaded city vehicles, and stopped at understated noodle shop, the kind of place that you assume is known for amazing taste because the aesthetics are a broken Miffy wall clock and a gas company sponsored calendar on the wall still displaying June. There were no menus, which didn't matter since Kaneko san took the liberty of ordering the same bowl of ramen noodles with pork and seaweed topping in soy broth for each in our party of 7. Apparently that was the signature dish of this particular spot, which meant that we had no choice in the same way you feel pressured into hanging laundry on a sunny day: the weather forecast ordered us to.

We reloaded the car and pulled into the city baseball stadium, where we were hosting a visiting team of little league baseball players from a sister city relationship Urawa had with a city in Mexico. They were playing a local team as a cultural exchange. My Spanish is worse than my Japanese, but I was to head out on the field and greet the visitors. I entered the field under a blazing sun. Up went the parasol, which was a most welcome prop since the handicap of having my right arm occupied got me out of having to throw the opening pitch. The teams went into extra innings, and when Urawa finally pulled off a win, they called another at bat for Mexico so they could win too.

There were no losers. What an excellent way to end the first day at a new job, and kick off another adventure. The time it took to play out the extra innings and the forced comeback given to Mexico would have resulted in the sunburn of a lifetime on a tropical summer day. However, I felt like a winner too, equipped with my save the day parasol. I was happy to have had that protection, whether I asked for it or not, happy to have had a meal that someone else selected, and inside I was relieved to know that I took the good advice of the weatherman that day and thus was going home to dry clean clothes on the line. I now attribute my good fortunes and countless excellent experiences from that job to the work of my Genie colleagues in the office, always on hand, in my very own magic bottle.

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